15 May 2024

The history of the word 'woke'

From Nights, 10:45 pm on 15 May 2024

Recently everything from school lunches to paintings of monarchs have been labelled 'woke'.

The word gets thrown around a lot. But what does it mean?

The word goes back to African-American vernacular in the 19th century, Auckland University's professor, Neal Curtis says.

He has written about the origins of the term.

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Photo: RNZ

The colloquialism first appears on an 1850 poster and later crops up in a Leadbelly song from the early 1930s telling black people to keep their eyes open, to be awake to the danger around them, Curtis says.

“It was a defensive strategy to make sure that people understood they were going to have to remain watchful and awake about what was happening around them and to take care.

“It's not something that's devised by academics or journalists It's just the language of everyday people in 1930s America.”

As 20th century liberation movements emerged, the term took on a more complex meaning, he says.

“It becomes more of an affirmative call, to be aware of structures of domination, to be to be critical, to understand institutional and structural racism.

“And rather than just a protective thing, watch out for people who might want to lynch you, it becomes a much more complex and integrated sense of societal discrimination.”

As this was happening American conservatism was shifting to the right, he says, through the Bush era and the formation of the Tea Party culminating in the Maga movement.

“They took the term and started to apply it in a dismissive way, in a denigrating way, to this broad, progressive politics that was beginning to emerge.

“In 2010 a lot of cultural things were starting to happen, right, there was much more sort of gay and lesbian people appearing in TV, there was a lot more black presence in films on news in journalism.

“And I think there was a sense that the Maga movement is very much a reactionary movement against a challenge to the dominant, white, straight male position, that position of privilege that's been enjoyed for such a long time.”

This week in New Zealand woke appropriation reached new levels of absurdity, he says.

“Now we've ended up in the most inane, stupid age where our politicians are referring to sushi as woke.”

Words evolve, he acknowledges, but says calling a food type woke is problematic.

“I'd be perfectly happy if they said, look, we're not going to supply sushi it's too expensive. We've got another healthy option, that's much cheaper great. I am totally happy with that.

“What I object to is somebody like Seymour referring to sushi, as woke, as if somehow that history of black activism is somehow equivalent to somebody's choice about whether they eat sushi or not.”